I recently had the chance to go to London for a few days. The city was my home for several years quite a few moons ago, so it always feels like an old friend. It is one of the great cities of the world, a buzzing, energetic urban centre where there is a wealth of things to see and do. My time in London was limited, but I did not fail to take the underground to Leicester Square and sneak in a visit to a very special place in St Martin’s Place.
A Treasure Trove for History Lovers
The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favourite museums in London. As its name suggests, it houses an outstanding collection of likenesses from the last five hundred years in a range of mediums. Some of the sitters were once famous or historically significant, others led truly remarkable lives, others were perfectly anonymous, but their portraits are all fascinating. Walking through its rooms is like paying a visit to a history book.
The portrait of Shakespeare, all intensity, with a shiny forehead and a single earring? It’s in the National Portrait Gallery. The stately images of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I that never fail to make it into their biographies? They’re there. The famous likeness of the Brontë sisters by their unhappy brother? It’s housed there as well, like many other works of art that you may rightly call iconic.
Cassandra’s Likeness of her Sister
By now, you have probably guessed whose portrait I went to see: Jane Austen’s, drawn by her sister Cassandra around 1810. It is the only known and verified likeness of the author, because controversy surrounds other portraits that have been found over the years, as Alexa Adam’s recent article on the Rice portrait attests.
When I reached the early XIX century rooms, full of the magnificent portraits of Regency royalty, aristocracy and celebrities, I almost walked past it, because Austen’s likeness is not hanging on the wall. It is so fragile that it is kept in a display of its own, away from harsh lights.
The portrait is minute: 4 1/2 inches x 3 1/8 inches (or 114 mm x 80 mm). I can assure you that it is so tiny that one wonders at Cassandra’s ability to draw a likeness in such a small space. Precisely because of its size, the portrait, although the work of an amateur, is admirable. Jane’s dark curls, faintly protruding eyes and aquiline nose are delicately captured. The image gives a vivid idea of what the author must have looked like, and suggests that she had a strong personality.
A Fine Example of Victorian Photoshop
Of course, the portrait of Jane Austen that we all have come to identify as hers, which features in the £10 notes in circulation since September 2017, is not this one, but rather the beautified version produced during Victorian times. The likeness, by artist James Andrews, was commissioned by Jane Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, son of her brother James. It was to illustrate A Memoir of Jane Austen, a collection of family memories he published over a half a century after his aunt’s death.
The redrawn portrait shows a younger, prettier, more amenable woman, very much in line with the Victorian ideal of a virtuous spinster. It is perhaps no coincidence that it also appears to fit much better with the memories that James Edward had of his aunt:
In complexion, she was a clear brunette with a rich colour; she had full round cheeks, with mouth and nose small and well formed, bright hazel eyes, and brown hair forming natural curls close round her face.
—James Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870)
Other than the “natural curls”, slender neck and delicate mouth, little remains of the original portrait. The slightly annoyed, almost defiant attitude that Cassandra captured so well in her watercolour is softened to the point of disappearance. Disconcertingly, a later version of the Victorian portrait also added a wedding band to Jane Austen’s ring finger, although it is a widely known fact that she never married.
A Must-See for Janeites
The Victorian portraits of Jane Austen may be more commercially minded and have more popular appeal. However, they lack the power of Cassandra’s original watercolour, or at least, the intensity I felt staring at it. Reader, I got goosebumps. It was mind-blowing to think that this tiny piece of ancient paper had been in Cassandra’s hands, and in such close proximity to my favourite author.
Next time you are in London, if you happen to be near Leicester Square, Charing Cross or Trafalgar Squar, pop in to the National Portrait Gallery. Head straight to the second floor and look for a miniature case in Room 18. Then, marvel at the thought of such a fragile piece having survived over two centuries so we can still enjoy it today, just as we enjoy Austen’s novels.
Which is your favourite Austen portrait and why? What do you think she really looked like?